Mumbai: Rahul Narayan calls himself Fleet Commander of Team Indus. In an interview, he speaks about his role and the challenges of landing a spacecraft on the moon. Excerpts:
How did you muster confidence to register for the Google Lunar XPrize without any background in aerospace on aeronautics?
If I had a background in aeronautics, I would not have picked up this project. It’s the whole rookie problem—getting solutions when you look at problems. The original idea was to join another team and build the software for them—as an external supplier or an internal resource. But there were no such opportunities. I even inquired with my friends in the aerospace industry. Hence, a bunch of folks with absolutely no background in aerospace got into this programme to see how it plays out. It wasn’t a hollow bet, though, because we had to pay an upfront sum of $50,000 to register.
What do you hope to achieve from this mission?
The idea is to make space travel and exploration sustainable by reducing time and costs. What we are doing is bringing down the costs by an order of magnitude, less than what it can cost Nasa to do. For us, the total cost will be $60-70 million while for Nasa, it will cost around $600-700 million. Government cost structures are radically different than what they are for private agencies. Nasa is in a developed country, so the costs are higher. Third, since we are a start-up, we take more risks as we push the boundaries. A space agency can’t do that. If we think there is a better, faster and cheaper way of doing a specific task, we will do it—whether it is about building a sub-system, testing it three or five times, two instead of three models, etc.—all this helps in reducing costs dramatically.
Do you recall any setbacks? What were the learnings?
Plenty. For instance, we were also shortlisted for the Camera Prize along with the Milestone Prize. However, we sort of outsourced the development of the camera for the project. The camera did not live up to the quality standards, and hence we could not win that prize. We could have raised an additional $0.25 million had we also won the Camera Prize. That was indeed a setback but we also learnt that we cannot outsource what we need to do personally. You can get pieces done, but as a programme manager and system integrator, you need to be on the top of things. We don’t have resources like say a SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corp., founded by Elon Musk) or Isro. The best way of controlling time and quality is when aluminium enters one end of the factory and a rocket comes out from the other end. We do not have this leverage. Hence, we now insist on on-site work and maintain a very close eye on the work—for example, there are 400 bolts on the lander—what if a single one is loose or vibrates? There is no room for error.
What’s your biggest success till date?
I see someone like Nandan (Nilekani) signing up for this project as a huge success for us. This was one of the single-most, impactful fundraising successes we had till date. Working with Dr (K.) Kasturirangan (former Isro head) was also a huge success when talking about acceptance in the space ecosystem. When it comes to outreach, Lab2Moon is a huge success even though we still have to see how this project eventually pans out.
Did you ever dream about landing on the moon when you were young?
I had a reasonably happy upbringing. My father worked with NTPC. My mother was a homemaker. I used to break a lot of stuff—starting from the cheapest buzzer at home to my bike. I knew how to rip everything apart but would always be at a loss when fixing those things rightly. School was great—we had access to computers in Class IV or V. We, then, had Commodore computers (the Commodore 1530 [C2N] Datasette) and programs were written on tapes. In Class VI (1985-86), we received pamphlets about the Apple (Ariane Passenger Payload Experiment) spacecraft and that was very exciting because it was built out of India.
There was no goal in mind at that point in time. At college, I got to play with bigger machines and I dismantled just about every electronic gadget I saw and tried to reassemble it. That’s the age when you moved away from toys to understanding how, for instance, IC (internal combustion) engines work. The idea was to look at the world and see how problems could be handled better. I had chosen computer science. It was a good learning point for me.
Do you now count yourself as someone who understands the aerospace industry well enough?
I have been told not to use this term but I will still use it—I see myself as someone who is hacking technology and using technology differently. We use a lot of learnings, for instance, from the automobile industry in aerospace. That is my sense of hacking. I don’t think I’m an aerospace expert and may not be one for a long time. I’m still standing on Isro’s shoulders but I do understand the subject (aerospace) now, and I can point out or look at the problems and the solutions. As a complete outsider, you think you can do everything differently. But once in, you realize that there is a lot of thought behind what goes in.